Summer’s almost over and so is my research.

A second guest-post from my undergraduate summer student Alison Banwell this month. Alison has wrapped up a good chunk of research from the summer and will continue taking courses through the fall and winter semesters. 

Because of this summer I can now follow, and maybe sometimes take part in, conversations on isotopes, oil sands, shale gas, and know how to make a poster to present research. The poster knowledge will definitely come in handy, since I’m planning on presenting a poster of my own at the undergraduate research symposium. I’m actually pretty excited since what I found turned out to be pretty interesting.

This summer I was measuring the isotope geochemistry of an oil sands core.   In my core there were organics, calcites, and pyrite. The isotope values of these compounds indicated microbial biodegradation. This is thought to be the dominant process that breaks down oil in the oil sands, but the important part is looking at where the biodegradation occurs when compared to the oil-water contact. The ground water and the oil don’t like to mix, so there’s a transition zone between the two, but the water is necessary to the microbes that break down the oil, and so biodegradation is different throughout the core depending on where it is compared to that contact.

Another exciting thing is that while I was searching for pyrite in my samples, I found coal. The bitumen and the coal do not have identical histories, since the coal was formed where we found it and the oil migrated from somewhere else closer to the Rocky mountains over a long period of time. This gives us a unique chance to look at how biodegraded the coal is to see if it matches up with where the oil is biodegraded. The measurements on the coal aren’t quite finished yet, so I might get to continue on in September for a little while, but for now I get a bit of vacation time.

Maybe I’m just nerdy, but I like to think about how at the beginning of the summer, I had no knowledge of any of this, and now I can look at petroleum systems  and understand what is happening. The other great thing about this summer was that I took my second geology course ever, from Ben again. Geology 203 was great for me, since as I was learning things in class I could see their real world applications and how they fit into the research I was doing. This was extremely helpful.

It was awesome to get the chance to learn so much and get an idea what it means to actually do research. I think I can compare it to what it would be like to be a grad student, except without any of the stress since my degree doesn’t hinge on whether I actually found anything or not, and everyone is willing to help and explain things. This summer has made me realize that being a grad student is definitely something to look forward to, and to keep on looking for opportunities like this one. If an undergrad student can handle something like this, more students should get a taste of research early in their academic journey, since it gives you a great perspective on learning that you just wouldn’t have without it. I know it changed my view of how I see university, and I think it was totally worth it just for that.

-Ali

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